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Not until the final mile of the men's marathon last Saturday at the World Track and Field Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, did charging Mark Plaatjes of Boulder, Colo., finally know he would win. Plaatjes, 32, grew up in banned South Africa and had immigrated to the U.S. in 1988. This was his first chance to run in a major international championship. Now, with the stadium in sight and the leader, Lucketz Swartbooi of Namibia, crumbling before him, Plaatjes was about to turn opportunity to gold, and it gave him shivering fits.
But then as he caught Swartbooi there were other emotions. "I felt terrible when the time came to pass Lucketz," said Plaatjes, "because he had run so hard and had been so brave." At the moment of his life's greatest triumph, Plaatjes thought of his opponent, with whom he shared a heritage—that of being on the wrong end of southern African history.
Plaatjes is the son of a black father and a Portuguese mother and so was classified as "colored" under the rigid divisions of South Africa's apartheid system. Thus he was a second-class citizen, voteless, restricted in where he might live or travel. But he was a prodigious talent. At only 17 he won the first of three South African marathon titles. "Running gave me everything," he said last week. "I got an education only because I could run."
He got a good one, at Georgia on a track scholarship in '82 and '83. He later finished school in South Africa and became a physical therapist. He was paid half what his white classmates were. By 1988 he was married, with a three-year-old daughter, Gen�. "My fundamental reason for leaving [ South Africa] was that I didn't want her growing up feeling inferior to anyone," he said.
Plaatjes settled in Boulder and began working in a private therapy practice. For five years he was stateless, able to run in invitationals but not in the Olympics or the worlds. He performed competently, winning the 1991 L.A. Marathon, but never approached his personal best of 2:08:58, set in 1985. "I needed a clearer focus," he said. On July 24 he finally got one: U.S. citizenship. He arrived in Stuttgart in the shape of his life, a man galvanized.
For much of the race, run on a hot, muggy evening, a pack of more than 20 bided its time while excitable Tanzanians and Cubans elbowed for the lead. Then, at about 18 miles, Swartbooi forced the pace, and the pack disintegrated.
In April, Swartbooi had placed third at Boston in 2:09:57. His Namibia, of course, is a freshly independent nation bounded to the south and southeast by South Africa. Swartbooi, the name his family was given long ago in the Afrikaans language imposed on his people, means "black boy." He carried himself with no wasted motion. By contrast, Plaatjes's left hand flew to his throat at every step, as if he were scratching a case of poison oak.
When Swartbooi moved, Plaatjes let him and several others go. Upon this decision his race hung. "I never felt really bad," he said, "but I was uncomfortable going faster. I held the pace."
One by one the others tired and came back to the new American. Swartbooi, too, began tottering. Plaatjes caught his man with barely half a mile to run. Remorseful or not, he passed him. "I thought, He's only 26," said Plaatjes. "He'll have other chances."